PYONGYANG – It’s a cold, crisp, sunny morning in the capital of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), and there could not be a more important game in town. Billboards bearing the numbers “2.16 [February 16]” – usually decorated with huge red flowers – are all over the place. The flowers are the only splashes of full color against drab grays and browns. They are of course kimjongilia, a modified begonia programmed to bloom exactly on – when else – 2.16.

For Pyongyang’s 2 million or so residents, it’s time to party. Today is the 68th birthday of the general secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army – comrade Kim Jong-il.

Kim Jong-il, aka the Dear Leader, has been the maximum leader of North Korea for almost 12 years now. But he’s not the president (the titular head of state is the chairman of the presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Yong-nam.) A key reason is that he’s not very fond of the endless, obligatory diplomatic round of meeting foreign heads of state.

The relentlessly apocalyptic Western media narrative would lead one to believe that on this eventful day the citizens of what is routinely depicted as a “Stalinist/communist/terrorist/totalitarian/insane/rogue/axis of evil gulag” would be one step short of showering a battery of commemorative missiles over South Korea, Japan or the west coast of the US for that matter, not to mention conduct another nuclear test. Reality though bears no “axis of evil” overtones.

Holiday on ice

The day starts with an early morning visit to the imposing bronze statue of president Kim Il-sung – aka the Great Leader, the father of the nation – on top of Mansu hill. It is officially 20 meters high (and certainly looks bigger). At the end of the Japanese colonial period, this site housed the largest Shinto shrine in Pyongyang; thus the Great Leader’s statue had to be no-holds-barred imposing.

Everyone and his neighbor seems to have come, bringing flowers, bowing respectfully, and always arriving in neatly arranged groups, from soldiers and high-ranking officials to village elders and the very good-looking traffic ladies in their blue winter jackets. Higher ups arrive with their wives in black Mercedes or Audis, the men in black suits, the women sporting extremely elegant and colorful versions of the Korean national dress.

Then it’s off to an international figure skating exhibition – not competition – that includes athletes from England, Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus and even a Russian, who was a bronze medalist in the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics, a favorite of the crowd. Call it Pyongyang’s counterpart to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. The real stars though are the locals skaters, kids included, and their apotheosis routine bearing the North Korean flag and the Juche flag – with its hammer, sickle and flame, symbolizing workers, peasants and intellectuals who, according to Kim Il-sung, are “the true masters of society,” as “creators of both material and spiritual wealth.”

Next stop is the 14th Kimjongilia Festival – a wacky, dazzling flower extravaganza with arrangements offered by everyone from military organs, ministries, national agencies and cooperatives to businesses, overseas Koreans, international organizations and foreign embassies, all featuring the hybrid red begonia (not the national flower of North Korea though; that’s the magnolia). The “flower of Kim Jong-il” was created by a Japanese botanist in 1988, symbolizing, according to the official narrative, “wisdom, love, justice, and peace.” The Great Leader Kim Il-sung, of course, has his own flower, the Kimilsungia.

The hall is absolutely packed. Everyone seems to have a portable digital camera that somehow materialized from China, and whole families and reams of schoolchildren are eager to pose for a flowery photo of ruby red Kimjongilias enveloping globes, displayed under depictions of high-speed trains, under emblems of the Dear Leader himself and even flanked by mini-replicas of Taepodong missiles.

Then it’s time for a mass open-air dance in a square flanked by government buildings – well, not really “mass”; a few hundred couples, the men in dark suits and the women in white, jade green, light pink, cream or black chima (skirt) and jogori (blouse), the “evocative of the fairies in the heavens” Korean national dress. They are all dancing to traditional songs blared to ear-splitting level by what could be dubbed the North Korean version of the Jamaican sound system.

The few steps are very simple, involving a bit of handclapping; the few gaping foreigners are welcomed to join the fun. The locals perform it all stone-faced, although not robotically. Sex in North Korea is not exactly in the air. Schools are segregated by sex. Even holding hands in public is considered very improper behavior. Unmarried single mothers are virtually non-existent (but if it happens, the newborn is meticulously taken care of by the state – just as Korea war orphans were.)

The highlight of the day is synchronized swimming – in an arena in the sports village. The elaborate ballets, performed by dozens of teenagers, rival China’s. Kimjongilia panels adorn the arena. Party elders and higher ups get the best seats. The foreign figure-skating stars are also attending. The highlight is a stunning aquatic socialist ballet featuring a native siren in red swimsuit.

That’s it; then socialist formalism dissolves, and the locals are off to dinner with relatives, mostly using the metro (two lines), or the aging, mobile works of socialist realism that are the local buses and trams. Some folk may eventually go bowling in the state-of-the-art Pyongyang Golden Lane Bowling Alley (45 lanes in fact; a detailed diagram on the wall shows the itinerary followed by Kim Il-sung on its inauguration day, and even all the spots where he stood). One fact though stands out; all through these merry proceedings, the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il himself was nowhere to be seen.

To be or not to be

Kim Jong-il was born on February 16, 1942, in an anti-Japanese guerrilla camp near Khabarovsk, just across the border from Manchukuo in occupied China. By this time, both his parents had been fighting the Japanese occupation for no less than 10 years.

All trap doors in secretive North Korea seem eventually to lead to what is in fact the royal Kim family – whose Shakespearean saga, if ever brought to a TV mini-series (maybe a Chinese or Hong Kong investor?) would undoubtedly enthrall a global audience.

The Dear Leader’s father Kim Il-sung, over six feet tall [1.82 meters] and sporting a broad forehead (a big thing among Korean mothers), was charisma personified. His mother, Kim Chong-suk, widely revered as the ultimate anti-Japanese heroine, was less than five feet tall, pear-shaped, always in guerrilla fatigues, with a round, wide, smiling face, friendly but not very well educated. Kim Jong-il looks more like mom. And to put it mildly, that has made him extremely uneasy all his life.

While he was still a boy, Kim Jong-il suffered two terrible traumas; the accidental drowning of his younger brother in 1947, and the death of his mother in childbirth in 1949. That’s when – sporting a state-issued polyester summer uniform and plastic shoes – he started going to gender-segregated elementary school.

Fast forward, and the plot thickens. The focus now is on Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-il’s son – and until recently heir not-so-apparent (for years he’s been living in China on and off). And also on Li Nam-ok, Kim Jong-il’s daughter, adopted by him to tutor and play with his beloved son. She is from an aristocratic landowning family from, well, the enemy, South Korea. And although she was born – and lived – with a silver spoon in her mouth, inevitably there would come a day when she would rebel.

The great love of Kim Jong-il’s life is and has always been his mistress, the ravishing – and also Southern aristocrat – Sung Hae-rim, the absolute top North Korean movie star. She happens to double as Li Nam-ok’s aunt. And it gets even juicier – she is Kim Jong-nam’s mother. This means Kim Jong-nam, a possible future DPRK leader (but by now bypassed by his youngest half-brother Kim Jong-un) is technically an illegitimate son.

Kim Jong-nam, tall and handsome like his grandfather Kim Il-sung, grew up much like Pu Yi – the last emperor of China; hyper-protected, hyper-pampered and in fact cloistered in the most cloistered society on the planet. At first he was educated by palace tutors, and had a court attending to his every whim. Meanwhile Li Nam-ok was developing different roles; at first she was his playmate, then his teacher, till finally she became his sister.

And here lies a crucial plot twist; these brother-and-sister royals lived virtually their whole early life as strangers in their own land. That’s definitely, deeply imprinted in the psyche of a possible future North Korean leader.

Later as teenagers, both Kim Jong-nam and Li Nam-ok were sent to expensive secondary schools in Geneva – with the inevitable corollary of partying with the rich and famous in Paris. That’s when la dolce vita made Li Nam-ok “betray” North Korea. Now she believes that even Kim Jong-il himself regards as nonsense the monolithic official narrative of post-1912 North Korea – the year the father of the nation, Kim Il-sung, was born.

Arguably the best informed source available anywhere on Kim Jong-il is Li Nam-ok herself, through her Breaking North Korean Silence: Kim Jong-il’s Daughter, A Memoir, written by Imogen O’Neill. Here one learns that the Dear Leader is very intelligent and very sensitive – a prudish and rather shy guy who’d rather stay at home and work in his pyjamas, as indeed he does.

He is not the socializing type – he’d probably rather drop dead than join Facebook. That in itself would explain why he didn’t make a public appearance on “2.16.” Like a grand maestro, Kim Jong-il apparently orchestrates all manner of North Korean spectaculars but is bored to tears to show up. He also seems to have a sharp comment about everything – solutions included – and is capable of mimicking virtually anyone. And – very important – he loves to laugh.

He apparently quit smoking a few years ago and drinks basically at formal occasions. Surprisingly for many, he is said to be not at all fond of the non-stop hero worship. In a very Korean manner, he’s a family man, whose company he prefers to anybody else’s. He seems to keep Joseph Stalin’s timetable – waking up in the middle of the night, working through the early morning and sleeping before noon. He used to like partying, when his 20 or so preferred guests indulged in beer, imported French cognac and ginseng whisky. But then the system’s elite can do the same in selected Pyongyang hotels.

As much as he may dislike the DPRK’s massive bureaucracy, he could not but be acutely aware of his own – and the state’s – security; he only trusts his close relatives. The top commanders in charge of Pyongyang’s security are four brothers who are in-laws to Kim Jong-il’s sister. In a nutshell, Kim Jong-il seems not to suffer fools, nor sycophants, gladly; he’d rather listen to honest straight-shooters, a rare commodity in his circle.

It comes as no surprise that Kim Jong-il could never be immune from the seductive soft power of American and Western mass culture. He’s an inveterate fan of Western post-modernity. Thus the array of Sony LED televisions in every room of his many palatial abodes, which means that Kim Jong-il may tune in to every trashy offering on Japanese, South Korean and American cable. He surfs the Internet every day and is very well informed in a variety of issues. He’s a collector with an immense video and DVD library. especially from Hollywood. He loves classical music but also the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys and Pink Floyd (there’s a fabulous black and white photo of Kim Jong-il in 1977 with rebel hair and dark glasses. What would be his Western role model then? Joe Strummer of The Clash? Would he be listening to White Riot?)

And then there’s his fleet of over 20 cars, including American brands but most of all his now iconic black armored Mercedes S-600 with tinted windows, sometimes glimpsed in Pyongyang’s boulevards (but not on this 2.16).

Whether or not he’s the Dr Evil portrayed by Western corporate media, what is certain is that Kim Jong-il urgently has to sort out plenty of turbulence rattling the DPRK.

The house the Great Leader built

Close observation of Pyongyang reveals that the North Korean system may be now like an overlapping maze of Chinese boxes – some more elaborate than others, but all very circumscribed in trying to defeat the law of gravity and keep their relative privileges. The “law of gravity” in this case is an economy that’s been in chronic crisis for the past two decades.

Kim Jong-il’s official “military-first” policy means heavy weaponry benefits from 25% to 30% of North Korea’s annual budget (well, the US shifts 19% of federal spending and 44% of tax revenues to the Pentagon; the Iraq and AfPak wars, both funded by borrowing from foreign powers, have cost each American family $25,000, according to Canadian media). But the crucial problem is that the army now has become more important than the Worker’s Party, which in a socialist system spells certified disaster for the toiling, loyal masses. The party still regiments no less than over a third of the DPRK’s adult population.

The massive bureaucracy has acquired a life of its own. The historically centralized, and bureaucratically planned, supply of goods and services by the state sometimes breaks down to a halt at the local level. There’s a tremendous generation gap/shock between the old Korean War (1950-1953) revolutionaries and the baby boomers – the North Korean version.

The only Great Leader that North Korea ever had has been dead for almost 16 years – and the official narrative can be seen as a perpetual meditation/mourning of this loss. And there’s one confrontation after another with the United States.

Kim Jong-il must think that North Korea definitely is not Somalia; this is a much more developed and modern economy. But what is it, exactly?

The house the Great Leader Kim Il-sung built from scratch could possibly be described as an ultra-nationalist, family values, Confucian corporate state. It is Confucian in its profound respect for the family and its respect for a supposedly enlightened, learned elite. Chu Hsi, the founder of neo-Confucianism during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) would arguably feel at home in the DPRK.

As for nationalism, it manifested himself, for instance, by the choice of a “pure” indigenous language, based on an alphabet invented by King Sejong in the early 15th century, and thus not contaminated by either English or Japanese.

But the most striking aspect of North Korea’s official narrative is that no less than five millennia of very rich history are condensed and everything is telescoped to April 15, 1912, the birth date of Kim Il-sung (“the day of the Sun”) and the ground zero of the juche (pronounced chuch’e) idea.

Juche was Kim Il-sung’s indigenous remix of Marxism/Leninism/Stalinism inflected with heavy boosts of Confucianism and metaphysics. On face value, juche means “self-reliance” and independence, not only in ideology and politics but also in all matters economic. Juche was in action already in 1955, when the DPRK declared its independence from the USSR, and again in the mid-1960s, when it reaffirmed its independence from both the USSR and China. It was to a great extent by formalizing juche that Kim Il-sung was revered all over the developing world as one of the great 1950s icons of decolonization.

Bruce Cumings, arguably the best American scholar on North Korea, gets straight to the point: “The term is really untranslatable; the closer one gets to its meaning, the more the meaning slips away. For a foreigner its meaning is ever-receding, into a pool of everything that makes Koreans Korean, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to the non-Korean. Juche is the opaque core of North Korean national solipsism.”

In his own book On the Juche Idea (1982), a perennial best-seller at the Foreign Languages Publishing House in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il seems to break away from the DPRK’s irredeemable solipsism to trace a surefire path for economic development. He writes that “heavy industry with the machine-building industry as its backbone is the pillar of an independent national economy.” This in turn will “accelerate the development of light industry and agriculture,” and it must be coupled with “solving the problem of food on one’s own through successful farming.”

In sum: “If one is to be economically self-sufficient and develop the economy on a safe basis and with a long-term perspective, one must depend on one’s own raw materials and fuel sources.”

Is it working? Not exactly. Kim Jong-il has roughly a little over two years to turn things around – amid insistent rumors about his health and his succession – and, in official terminology, “open the gate to a thriving nation in 2012,” when there will be a massive national party to celebrate the centenary of the birth of Great Leader Kim Il-sung.

So no wonder in the end he had better things to do than show up for his own birthday party. But a few nagging questions remain. Considering his background and his tastes, does he ever feel like escaping from his own fortress? Does this certified recluse harbor the subversive thought of going to a mall somewhere in the West and watching a disaster movie in a cineplex, just like anybody else? Or ultimately would this movie buff – author of the quite decent On the Art of the Cinema (1973) – rather be the star in an alternative plot?

Next: Happiness rolls over us like a wave